The Common Barberry, a quite well-known bushy shrub, with pale green deciduous leaves, is found in copses and hedges in some parts of England, and is possibly a native in Scotland and Ireland. It is generally distributed over the greater part of Europe, Northern Africa and temperate Asia. Barberry is an ornamental shrub, and is fairly common in gardens.
Barberry stems are woody, 8 - 10 feet high, upright and branched, with a white pith and an ash-coloured bark. The primary leaves on the woody shoots are reduced to three-forked spines, with an enlarged base. The secondary leaves are from the axil of these spines and are a simple oval shape, tapering at the base into a short footstalk. The flowers, blooming towards the ends of the branches, are small and pale yellow - their scent is not particularly attractive. The berries are about half an inch long, oblong, and slightly curved. They are a red colour when ripe, and taste similar to a tamarind. The leaves are also acid, and have sometimes been employed for the same purposes as the fruit. Cows, sheep and goats are said to eat the shrub, but horses and pigs refuse it on account of its acidity - birds do not tend to eat the berries for this reason also.
The Barberry used to be cultivated for the fruit, which was pickled and used for garnishing dishes. Provincially, the plant is also termed Pipperidge Bush, which originated from the words 'pepon' (a pip), and 'rouge' (red), a description of the scarlet, juiceless fruit. ‘Berberis’ is the Arabic name of the fruit, signifying a shell, and many authors believe the name is derived from this word, because the leaves are glossy, like the inside of an oyster-shell.
The bark and root-bark of Barberry are used medicinally. The stem-bark is collected by shaving, and is dried spread out in the sun, or in a well-ventilated greenhouse, warmed either by sun or by artificial heat. When dried, the pieces of bark are in small irregular portions and marked with shallow longitudinal furrows. It is dark yellowish-brown on the inner surface and has a slight odour and a bitter taste.
The root-bark is greyish brown externally and is dried in a similar manner after being peeled off. When dry, it breaks with a short fracture. It contains the same constituents as the stem-bark and possesses similar qualities.
The chief constituent of Barberry bark is Berberine, a yellow, crystalline bitter alkaloid, together with oxyacanthine, berbamine, other alkaloidal matter, a little tannin, wax, resin, fat, albumin, gum and starch.
Barberry is commonly used as a tonic, purgative and antiseptic. It is sometimes used in the form of a liquid extract, and given as decoction, infusion or tincture, but generally a salt of the alkaloid Berberine is preferred.
As a bitter stomachic tonic, it proves an excellent remedy for dyspepsia and functional derangement of the liver, regulating digestion, and if given in larger doses, acts as a mild purgative. It is used for the treatment of jaundice, general debility and for fever and diarrhoea. It also forms an excellent gargle for a sore mouth.
The berries contain citric and malic acids, and possess astringent properties. In the form of a jelly, the berries are a very refreshing treatment for irritable sore throats, as is the syrup made of Barberries, which is an excellent astringent gargle.